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Research Strategy & Documentation

Overview

Today we have access to more information than ever -- good and bad. It is constantly shifting and changing. It is easy for a researcher to get overwhelmed. Even sources that seem at first glance authoritative and accurate may not be reliable. As attorneys you are held to a high standard of competency.  Thus, the burden of filtering any information found falls on... YOU!!!!

CAST is an acronym designed to help you evaluate sources, whether in print or online. You CAST your net to bring back relevant, authoritative resources.

C - Credibility

A - Accuracy & Validity

S - Scope

T - Timeliness

Pre-Search Screening

  • Fact Pattern Analysis – Use TRAPP
    • You need to know what you’re looking for because you will want to test your sources against your research goal.
  • Before you read a source or spend time hunting for it, begin by looking at the following information in the citation:
    • Author
    • Type of source
    • Abstract (if available)
    • Date

Credibility

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Peter Steiner, Cartoon Caption,The New Yorker, July 5, 1979. When looking at web resources, it is particularly important to critically evaluate the information you find. With print resources, even those produced by the popular print, there is an editorial process and fact checking. This is often not true of documents found on the web.

Ask the following questions about the author and publisher:

  • Who is the author and/or publisher?
    • Is the publication a peer-reviewed publication or from a university press?
      • There is a higher bar to being published in a peer-reviewed publication.
    • Look at the author’s education, training and experience.
      • What is the author’s title or position?
      • What relevant degrees does the author hold?
      • What relevant experience does the author have?
      • What else has the author written on the topic?
    • Be skeptical of any webpage that does not identify an author or only has generic webmaster contact information.
  • What is the purpose of the work?
    • Does the author or the organization publishing it have a known viewpoint or financial stake in an issue?
      • Authors and organizations with a bias or an agenda may present useful information but they may be less objective and shape the data to support their agenda.
  • What is that author's reputation in the field?
    • Is the author and/or source cited by others writing about the subject?
    • What do those other works say about the author / source?

Read the About the Author section, use article indexes and citators, and look up the author to help you answer these questions. You can apply this to more than just secondary sources. For case law, look at the judge writing the opinion and the court from which it comes.

Accuracy & Validity

Ask the following questions:

  • Does the author thoroughly cite all the sources?
    • Improper or poorly cited sources can be a warning flag on the accuracy of the content.
    • Lack of citation can also be a warning flag.
  • Does the author's evidence support the claims made?
    • As an example, sometimes cases cited do not actually support the argument being made. While sometimes this is a case of interpretation, othertimes it is the result of the author misreading the case or only shallowly reading the case.
  • Is the author's evidence objective research, personal narrative, or opinion?
  • Does it come from a peer-reviewed publication?
    • Peer reviewed publications indicate the content was reviewed by experts.
  • Does it provide an explanation of the research method(s) used to gather and interpret data presented?
    • The methodology outlined in the document should be appropriate to the topic and able to be duplicated.
  • Can you cross-check the information?
  • Are there obvious errors?

Scope

Ask the following questions:

  • As you evaluate, try to determine what is covered and in how much depth.
    • Is it relevant?
    • What aspects of the subject are covered?
      • Does it summarize?
      • Is it comprehensive?
      • Is it narrow?
        • If the article is narrow, can the information within it be generalized to your topic?
      • Is important information left out?
    • What will you use it for?
    • Are there broad generalizations that overstate or oversimplify?
  • Determine the intended audience.
    • Was it written for experts, students, practitioners, laypeople, etc.?
    • Is it too technical or too general for your needs?
    • Was it a response to another scholar or theory?
  • What is the purpose behind the work?
    • Are alternative views presented?
    • Does the author address opposing arguments?
  • Does it cover the time period you need?

Timeliness

Ask the following questions:

  • Is the document or webpage dated?
    • With a website, it can be particularly difficult to determine the date of the information. Dates listed on a website can consist of the date posted, date updated, a copyright date, or there may be no date.
    • In a print treatise, the title page or back of the title page has the copyright date. If the work has been translated, the date may be the date of the translation rather than the original work. If there more than one date listed on the page, those dates indicate the different editions.
    • In a loose-leaf publication, individual pages may have different dates.
  • When was the resource last updated?
  • How often is it updated?
  • Is it the type of material that needs to be frequently updated?
    • Some areas of law change more quickly than others.
    • Some information is timeless.

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